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The Secret Culture of Grave Robbery in the Philippines

No, the dead may not rest for grave robbers.
IMAGE Rey Etable
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Angelito Oreta is a grave robber. But he is no Lara Croft, who raids tombs for treasures. He makes a living by plundering freshly dug up graves in Manila in search of kneecaps, not trinkets. He uses the kneecaps to make amulets for protection.

Once he finds a fresh grave, he patiently waits until dark when the relatives of the dead leave. He digs up the corpse and carefully extracts the kneecaps with skin and tendon still attached to them. He soaks them in coconut oil for days to separate the skin from the bone.

Ironically, the kneecap amulets are meant to protect the owner from thieves.

Angelito Oreta Showing the Kneecaps He Stole from the Dead

Oreta is just one of the hundreds of grave robbers in the Philippines. They closely watch public cemeteries for “new arrivals.” The majority of the raiders search for small treasures—jewelry, watches, gold-plated teeth. They sell these items to pawnshops for a couple of thousand pesos.

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Robbing graves in the Philippines has been around for centuries. It’s because of the Filipino cultural practice of leaving trinkets and money with the dead as they are buried. In the precolonial period, burial ornamentation indicated the dead’s social status and power. Gold, silk, and other precious items were buried with the person.

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Grave robbery has become so rampant especially in the less protected public cemeteries, that a law had to be passed in the hope of curbing cemetery thievery. The late Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago championed the Anti-Grave Robbers Act, which placed stiff penalties for people who desecrate graves.

Unlike in private cemeteries, the graves in public cemeteries are above ground, which makes them susceptible to plunderers. To save space, graves are stacked on top of each other, with some reaching heights of more than 10 feet. Rent is paid by the families for these graves. Stories of bodies being exhumed because of families failing to pay rent are common. The lease for such graves is usually for five years. If a family fails to pay, the remains are dug up and burned.

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This setup is another opportunity for exhumers, who dig up the bodies for a fee: P50 for a baby, P150 for an adult.

Because of the fear of grave robbers, it has become common practice for Filipinos to guard the graves of their newly buried loved ones for days after the burial, or until the cement in the elevated graves has set.

But in a country steeped in spirituality and sacred regard for the dead, one wonders how grave robbers stomach their livelihood.

''We don't know who they belong to,” Oreta tells Newsflare. “They're from different people. They are not my relatives but I offer prayers to them. They could protect my family.”

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About The Author
Mario Alvaro Limos
Features Editor, Esquire Philippines
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